The View From Glasgow: Reflections From COP26

by Darya Silchenko

Last week Darya Silchenko (The National University of Ireland, Galway) traveled to Glasgow to attend the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, a.k.a. COP26. She shares her reflections from the conference with CleanAIRE NC here as a guest author.

My observations of COP26 began as soon as I landed at the Glasgow airport. There was a small but mighty group of protesters, with a campaign that looked like it was against the greenwashing of the ‘sustainable future’ of Glasgow airport. One poster stated: “There is no such thing as green flying.” Of course, my being at the airport for a climate event was a humbling and ironic reminder that so many of the journeys towards Glasgow were contributing to the very catastrophe of the climate breakdown.

Before heading towards the Climate Justice Rally, the irony revealed itself again. As I enjoyed a free oat milk latte, sponsored by Oatly, I realized that the quirky ‘Cup26’ cup that held my beverage was neither compostable nor recyclable. It, unfortunately, began its journey to a landfill shortly after I finished.


Brought Together By A Common Purpose

“The wrong Amazon is burning”
“Pledges are not action”
“Climate justice now”
“COP26, our eyes are on you”

These are a few of the statements I began to see written on cardboard posters that were beginning to swarm around as we made our way towards Kelvingrove Park, where already thousands of protesters had gathered. Already, it was visibly clear that the climate crisis affects all of us, and that climate justice is intersectional. From nurses to surfers, from children to the elderly, people from all different backgrounds were united behind a common purpose.

People advocated for plastic-free oceans, action on the biodiversity crisis, climate justice for migrants and refugees, saving the farmers, fighting against colonialism, and Indigenous solutions to climate change. Posters depicting Greta Thunberg’s now-famous “blah blah blah” dismissal of empty climate promises were covering the city and plastered on people’s signs. People were not only in the streets but hanging from windows in their flats, marching from afar.

Bear in mind, the weather was typically Scottish. It was raining heavily but was not without brief but beautiful bursts of sunshine, and of course, double rainbows. People kept in high spirits. We were dancing, laughing, smiling, cheering, and chanting together. A brass band dressed in golden attire didn’t miss a bit throughout the march and brought everyone around them joy. Everyone’s voice here mattered. At the end of the march, people gathered in Glasgow Green for food, music and to listen to speeches by activists. Coming from a long day of travel, I decided to call it a day. But the spirit of Climate Justice ringed through the city as people gathered in pubs, restaurants, and community spaces, and everyone around asked:

“Did you make it to the march?”

Through Another’s Eyes

I spent the next day at the free public events hosted at the ‘Green Zone’ of COP26. One of my favorite moments here was the use of Virtual Reality goggles in ‘The Frontlines: Step into the Reality of Climate Change.’ This experience took users out into space to look at the fragility of the Earth from afar, noting the role we all have as nurturing this small blue dot in the galaxy. Users were then guided back home from space with the reminder that this is where we all live.

The next stop on this VR journey was Kiribati, to see the story of climate change through an underrepresented population’s point of view. This innovative and intimate experience was a reminder that the impacts of climate change are deeply disproportionate. We don’t always have the ability to step into the lives of those most vulnerable to the climate crisis like this; it’s therefore crucial that we amplify their voices whenever we can, that we ask what we can learn from them and how we can mobilize to stop the catastrophe impacting their livelihoods, communities, and very survival.

That’s me holding the poster with their hashtag, #ClearTheAir

Present at the Green Zone was the UK’s largest clean air campaign, ‘Clear the Air.’ As we were observing the ‘Respira-TREE,’ we discussed how climate change is also fueling a crisis for human health. One of the spokespeople for Clear the Air, a student from London, emphasized the importance of addressing human health and climate change as interlinked issues; working on these fronts holistically will be more powerful than attempting to address the crisis in a disconnected manner.

The last event I attended while in Glasgow was a film screening of ‘The Ants and the Grasshopper,’ followed by a Q&A with Raj Patel and Danielle Nierenberg. This was the best way to end the weekend. This community event brought people together to listen to perspectives on challenges such as gender disparities, racial climate justice, climate, and religion. It touched on farmers’ perspectives on climate, the divide between the Global South and the United States, and so many more pertinent pieces of wisdom.

The narrator of the film, Malawian activist Anita Chitaya, is passionate about reaching her community and the world through discussing climate change and its direct implications for her everyday life. She often travels to the United States to tell her story, and to attempt to understand how countries like America are fueling this global crisis, while also doing what she does best – changing people’s hearts and minds.

The Real Force Behind The Change

Throughout my time at COP26 there was one clear ‘divide’ that I felt again and again, and that I’m sure many witnessed over social media: the divide between those at the COP26 delegations (world leaders, representatives, NGOs, international organizations, and even those from the corporate and fossil fuel world), and the people who are outside of this structure, such as activists like Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, and the Friday’s For Future campaigners.

This rift was eloquently captured during the Q&A for ‘The Ants and the Grasshopper.’ There was a line in the film where Anita, the film’s narrator, said something like “You can work with denial.” Raj Patel connected this idea to the various repeated pledges made by COP26 delegates, which are typically just recycled ‘agreements’ without any real action or enforcement. Raj stressed that these ‘official’ negotiations are not what will make a difference in the end. Rather, the real change will come from the very people who were in that room. From the people marching. From the people asking the real questions and demanding real climate justice, not empty promises and creative accounting measures.

I also met up with my professors in Glasgow, who are observers from Ireland at COP26. While their perspective aligns with this, they made the point that both forces are necessary. There are the activists, and there are the slow-moving but essential policy changes. My professors attended talks and met with people from around the world to discuss themes and research progress on topics of gender, disability, migration, and agriculture in relation to climate change. Meanwhile, the perspectives voiced by Raj and the film’s audience reached more towards the root factors of colonialism and capitalism that fuel the climate crisis.

The Work Begins

My time in Glasgow may have been brief, but it marked a profound experience for me that reignited my passion for acting against the powerful forces that perpetuate climate change and climate injustice. Physically seeing the number of people around the world gathering to deliver this message in unison was empowering.

My last views of COP26 were again in Glasgow airport, where incredible paintings (I initially thought they were photographs) hung in the hallways, depicting young children. These reminders should strike us deeply. The injustice of the climate crisis will only continue to grow over generations if we don’t drastically change course. It is every generation’s responsibility to make their world, and the world for those who come after them, a place where people can live in dignity, where nature is nurtured, and where the climate stabilizes rather than degrades.